Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Beauty as an Excess of Intelligibity

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Beauty as an Excess of Intelligibity

Article excerpt

Introduction

SINCE THE ONSET of the Romantic era, as Charles Taylor has pointed out, (1) artists have seen themselves to be uniquely gifted interpreters of reality; as Shelley declared, they have become for us moderns the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (2) But they had not always occupied such an authoritative role. In Taylor's analysis, this exalted position was an indirect result of the scientific revolution, which had disenchanted the world, thereby reducing existence to mundane material causes. This reductionist metaphysics deprived both artists and art-lovers of a common vocabulary for transcendent reference; as a result, it became necessary for artists to create, on the basis of their own insight, a new and "subtler" language to discern and communicate higher truths. These were truths that were accessible only to the genius of the artist, who in turn had the responsibility to impart them to others by means of his creative expression.

However, as the innovations of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud eviscerated Romantic spirituality and eroded the significance of human rationality, bringing into question the very existence of transcendent truth, the subtler languages of artistic genius were turned completely inward: renouncing any notion of higher truth, they now sought to acclaim as genius the naked impulse of the artist. Thus, in the last century, reflecting the increasing ugliness and irrationality of modern life, artistic genius came to identify itself with the subrational, a subtler language of meaninglessness and despair. To the extent that art continued to communicate any meaning at all, it was the utilitarian propaganda of a political broadsheet; more often, though, its subtle language, instead of articulating a transcendent and hidden truth, was employed to portray the unspeakable irrationality of the ugly, communicating only the artists' contempt for whatever remained of traditional value.

That we have reached a nadir in this devolution of art can be seen in two recent essays from opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum. In an essay in New Republic revealingly entitled "Liberals Are Killing Art: How the Left became Obsessed with Ideology over Beauty," Jed Perl argues that art has forsaken its higher purpose of communicating truth, its "celebration of unfettered metaphor and mystery and magic," in favor of a purely utilitarian and politicized mode of propaganda, becoming merely a "comrade-in-arms" to "some more general system of social, political, and moral values." (3) Moreover, this "erosion of art's imaginative ground ... is taking place in the very heart of the liberal, educated, cultivated audience--the audience that arts professionals always imagined they could count on." Thus, in Perl's estimation, it is the liberal audience for art that is turning art in an irremissibly illiberal direction, betraying all higher truth and making art serve only political ends. The left's need to politicize everything has caused the decline in the relevance of art that, in the end, undermines art's ability to communicate anything of real value at all. (4)

On the other hand, contemporary art that eschews overt politicization has fared no better, for it often revels in the idiosyncrasy of kitsch, or even debases itself in the exaltation of ugliness. Beauty has been sacrificed to cleverness, but once again this repositioning of art despairs of communicating the vital higher truths man naturally seeks. This trend is well illustrated in the review published in the New Criterion (5) of a retrospective dedicated to Jeff Koons at the Whitney Museum of American Art. As the article notes, "Koons is famous for industrially produced pop imagery such as inflatable hearts and balloon dogs, all of it turned out on a large, sometimes gigantic scale in cheerful, candy-box colors and polished to a high, reflective sheen." While it may sound improbable that this sort of work would merit a retrospective occupying three whole floors of a major New York institution, the article offers an apologia of a sort: "Distasteful as it may be to bestow such an accolade on someone who traffics so brazenly in the shallow, the banal, the meretricious, and the cheap, he really is the most important artist of our time. …

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